- Historic Sites
The Longest Race
At a time when driving from Manhattan to Yonkers was a supreme challenge, a half-dozen cars pointed their radiators west and set out from Times Square for Paris
November 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 7
The Thomas Flyer was the first through to Ohio, where the residents of one tiny town threw apples, oranges, and bananas into the car as it passed; one man tossed in a bottle of port. At the moment, the Moto-Bloc was traipsing along near Geneva, New York. Ominously, Lieutenant Koeppen in the Protos was completely broken down and losing time.
“I wish we were now in Alaska, for it will surely be easier and more pleasanter going than this,” he said in his dispatch to the Zeitung am Mittag . He sounded glum, possibly because he was losing and possibly because the kaiser himself was said to be following the progress of the race closely. In which case, not just the lieutenant was losing; Germany was too.
St. Chaffray, in the De Dion, was also losing, but was he glum? He was not, explaining from Ohio why he chose to stop chasing the Thomas one evening. “We are heroes, but we eat,” he confirmed. “The Thomas people are under the snow at this very time when I have the pen in hand. We shall drink to their health a good glass of water. They drink now the snow.”
Word of the approaching cars was passed along telephone and telegraph wires, making a whiz-bang holiday for five hundred small towns in the United States alone. One tiny Indiana village took a little bit more than its share of the glory, really, posting a sign for the sake of the Thomas: GOOD LUCK ON KENDALLVILLE-TO-PARIS RACE .
Baron Godard was outraged. “Parbleu!” he exclaimed, probably getting himself some attention in Indiana. “One … place, we stop for dinner at the house of a peasant—I think you call him farmer.” The dinner cost three dollars. “‘What for you charge me three dollars?’ I tell the peasant,” the baron continued. “The farmer say, ‘You folks eat my two chickens; they play in the kitchen with my children.’ Oh! that is too much; what for he cook his pet chickens?”
By the time the racers reached Chicago, the cars were spaced apart, so the city was able to honor each contestant equally. As Montague Roberts whisked across Illinois, the De Dion and Zust were behind by a matter of a day or so. The Moto-Bloc was in there someplace. But in the case of the Protos, it was no longer a matter of how many hours it was behind, or how many days; it was how many states. The car broke down a lot, and when it reached Chicago, ten days behind the Thomas, it was broken again. Furthermore, Lieutenant Koeppen’s two teammates declared an ultimatum: Either he was going to leave the race or they were. They claimed that they didn’t like the way he was garnering all the publicity. But as it was hardly the sort of publicity anyone would want—ever explaining which part the Protos was waiting for—the team probably had other problems. Lieutenant Koeppen couldn’t just leave the team though. In the first place, he would be in trouble with the German army, which had given him a special leave of absence, and in the second place, he had sunk his own meager fortune into the effort. He was still a long way from Paris, but he had to continue. He couldn’t go on without a teammate, however, so he acted swiftly, if rather desperately, telegraphing an opera singer he knew in Germany. She gave him the name of her husband’s ex-chauffeur, then living in America. Finally Lieutenant Koeppen and his new chauffeur left Chicago on the trail of the Thomas, but they found themselves continually held up in Iowa—not just by the muddy “gumbo” that had caught the other cars but by something even stickier: German-American social clubs in nearly every town that insisted on celebrating the Protos with banquets. And speeches.
SUDDENLY THE WORLD had a real race. The Thomas and the Protos were within hours of each other and fighting hard.
Montague Roberts had just been given the nickname Get Here Roberts when he withdrew from the Thomas team in Cheyenne to fulfill a previous obligation to drive in a trophy race back East. By then he’d driven the car for forty days, and he’d driven beautifully, knowing when to press the car forward to make time and when to take it easy to stay out of the ditches as much as possible. As he left, the Thomas had a commanding lead of a week over the Zust; his replacement was a young man named E. Linn Mathewson who was associated with the Thomas dealer in Wyoming.